Panettone perfection

By Frier McCollister

Panettone. It’s the iconic sweet bread or leavened fruitcake, originally from Northern Italy.

Traditionally popular in Europe and Latin America throughout the holiday season, it’s most recognizable here as a boxed confection that mysteriously retains an air of freshness, despite an apparently prolonged shelf life. Fortunately for folks in Pasadena looking to indulge a bit of sweetness for the holidays, we have a brand new pasticceria dispensing fresh and authentic Northern Italian cakes, pastries and gelato.

And the panettone? It’s not in a box.

Carrara’s Pastries quietly opened its third location in August as part of the new Avila condominium development on Walnut, just west of Fair Oaks. It’s an unassuming storefront skirted by a spacious outdoor patio. Though street parking is elusive, guests of Carrara’s can park in the building’s indoor lot with the first 90 minutes free.

The block on Walnut is largely bereft of pedestrians, perhaps one of the reasons the place has largely slipped under local gourmands’ radar.

That said, I was tipped off to the opening by a friend, who was acquainted with Carrara’s already well-earned local reputation. A stray guest at the shop perusing the display cases offered a bit more insight.

Dan Dietz of Simi Valley works in Pasadena and was quick to assert, “Oh, there’s a following for Carrara’s. There’s one in Moorpark. I’ve been a fan for years. They did the desserts for my wedding reception.”

The first location of Carrara’s was opened by the Carrara brothers, Damiano, 35, and Massimiliano, 33, in Moorpark in 2013. However, the real story begins in Lucca, Tuscany, where the brothers were born and raised. Their family had no background in food. Their father worked in construction and their mother was a postal supervisor.

“Honestly, I never liked to study,” Massimiliano said.

“My parents wanted me to go to school, but I wanted to do this. I wanted to bake. (My parents said) ‘OK,’” let’s see if we can find you a job.’”

At 14, Massimiliano began working at Le Bonta.

“It’s one of the best bakeries in Lucca,” he said. “So I was lucky to start there. I grew up at the bakery.”

The owner—Marco Toschi—paid for Massimiliano’s formal culinary training at the Italian Pastries Academy of Rimini. “I’m very grateful to him,” said Massimiliano. The two remain close friends.

The younger Carrara worked at the bakery in Lucca for 10 years, while his brother Damiano began bartending in Italy and Ireland before moving to Southern California.

He landed as general manager and head bartender at Café Fiorentini in Moorpark.

“I asked my boss (if I could) visit my brother for a month,” Massimiliano said. “I came to America. We saw there weren’t so many Italian bakeries here.”

The seed for Carrara’s was planted and their first store, which remains their flagship and primary commercial bakery, opened in 2013.

One year later, they opened a smaller outlet in Agoura Hills. The positive reception and success of both outlets prompted the Carraras to consider a franchise model and they began preparations to open the new branch in Pasadena as a prototype for prospective franchisees.

At this point, it should also be noted that everything created at Carrara’s is scratch-made, fresh from ingredients directly sourced and imported from Italy. So are the elegant bags and boxes for purchased treats as well as the tables, chairs and display cases.

Originally the Pasadena opening was slated for March. Recalling the state of the pandemic in Italy in February and March, the fact that Carrara’s managed to open in August is remarkable.

More remarkable is the care, attention and expertise reflected in the quality of the cakes, pastries and even the gelato here. Massimiliano deserves much of the credit for what you see in the display cases these days. However, it’s also worth noting that while the elder brother, bartending Damiano Carrara initially supervised front-of-house in Moorpark, he also trained belatedly, at the same Italian pastry academy as his younger brother.

As their mini-empire began to expand, Damiano’s TV career as a celebrity baker also launched. He appeared as a contestant in the first season of the Food Network’s “Spring Baking Championship” in 2015 and took second place. Later the same year, he won the “Chocotage XXL” episode of the network’s popular “Cutthroat Kitchen.” These appearances led to recurrent roles as a judge for a variety of televised baking competitions, now including three shows in Italy, most notably Bake Off Italia. He’s also the author of “A Taste of Italy” published in 2017 by Sterling Epicure. It’s for sale in the Pasadena shop and he has two other books published in Italy and written in Italian.

“My brother, when he puts something in his head, he doesn’t do it halfway,”

Fortunately, someone’s minding the store. Massimiliano has his hand in every cake and pastry displayed in the elegant Pasadena shop, managed by the ever-helpful Sara Norcott. The three locations are supervised by chief operating officer Shaylee Olson, who partnered with the brothers shortly after the first bakery opened in Moorpark.

The notion of using the Pasadena outlet as a franchise prototype began last year.

“The original plan was to start franchising,” Olson said. “We wanted to bring this Italian culture to more locations.”

She and the brothers traveled back to Italy and attended a major convention in Rimini to conduct research.

“We met with an architect in Italy,” Olson said. “He made the vision come to life with this brass and black marble. Our goal is to make (the pastry) look like jewelry.”

Now, about the glittering contents of those cases. Although the larger Moorpark location functions as a full-service restaurant, in Pasadena it’s all cakes, pastries and gelato.

Fresh cakes are available in three size diameters: 6-inch ($24); 8-inch ($36) and 9-inch ($39). Individual portions of tiramisu, ricotta cheesecake, sfogliatelle, and croccantino are admirably splayed aside colorful rows of bite-sized bigne, cannoli and rum baba. By the way, first timers are always treated to a complimentary frittelle, lightly fried and sugared spheres filled with Chantilly crème. Pro-tip from Massimiliano? “I like to work with chocolate.”

Fresh coffee in all of the Italian styles is also served. The house blend is sourced and roasted back home in Lucca. It’s also available at the shop.

Finally—‘tis the season—let’s not forget the panettone. Massimiliano’s renditions of this holiday classic begin with a yeasted dough, from a living culture that is more than 100 years old.

“I got it from one of the best pastry chefs in Italy,” he said.

The panettone process requires three full days of preparation to produce each of the fluffy, bell-shaped confections.

Massimiliano is blunt when he reflects on the current state of things at the new location.

“So far it’s been very hard for us to stay alive, to open up in the pandemic,” he said.

“We’re excited to bring this to Pasadena,” Olson added.